The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

February 12, 2012

Lillian James Learning Center

By Sarah Plummer
Register-Herald Reporter

— Program director Harry Keaton describes the Lillian James Learning Center as the area’s best kept secret.

Nestled off Dove Street in Crab Orchard, the facility provides the same services it has for more than 30 years — job training and employment placement for adults with disabilities.

“What we provide is very important to the community. Everybody wants to be as independent as they possibly can. Everyone wants to do better; it’s the American dream. Our programs, in no small part, help perpetuate those goals,” Keaton explained.

When clients first come to the center, they are assessed to see what skills they possess and which they may need to learn as a part of an employment readiness program, he explained.

Clients many need help with job terminology, budgeting, check writing, homemaking, transportation, legal issues or grooming.

“We focus on life skills such as survival living, vocational exploration, interpersonal relations, adjustment to disability and work behavior,” he said.

As a vendor for Division of Rehab Services, the program uses state curriculum and assesses clients after they complete each training session.

After finishing employment readiness, clients move onto the technical training program.

“They work in jobs out in the community and make minimum wage, training wage, while they are learning to work,” Keaton said. “The program is designed to make sure they are on task and on time.”

After job training, clients who are ready get placed in jobs, and there are several job training/placement opportunities in addition to partnerships with local businesses.

Through Hancock County Shelter Workshop, the learning center provides hospital laundry services in Welch. This is both a training and employment opportunity.

The Lillian James Learning Center also has a wood shop where clients are trained and employed to refurbish and repair antique furniture, restoring it to its original state, said Keaton. The wood shop also builds custom antique-looking or modern furniture.

Through West Virginia Association of Rehab Facilities, Lillian James Learning Center participants train and are employed in custodial services in state buildings.

“This is really our unseen workforce. Our employees work after hours cleaning or before the buildings open,” he said. “We are always looking for government buildings to do. The more contracts we have, the more people we can employ.”

Currently the center has participants providing custodial services to the State Police headquarters, the DMV and the DHHR office in Beckley.

The Lillian James Learning Center branch in Fayette County, which provides the same services, has custodians at the Office of Miner’s Health, Safety and Training; Department of Highways offices; and the Division of Rehab Services offices in Fayette, he said.

Often, employers relay how well the employment partnership is going.

“What we have found in the past is that people with disabilities who are working make excellent employees. They are loyal, on time, on task and they appreciate their job because they know how tough it was to get it,” he shared.

For many employees from the learning center, a job is not just a job.

“What it does is add value to their life. Some of our workers may only be able to work an hour a day. We have one man who gathers trash bags for one hour in a cleaning contract building, but that hour is the most important hour he has,” Keaton said. “He will tell you with pride each day, ‘I am going to work today.’”

It is hard for Lillian James Learning Center to find jobs for everyone, and the center is nonprofit. They work continually to find grants and corporate or private donors. In addition to grants and individual giving, the center is supported by United Way of Southern West Virginia and Beckley Area Foundation, among others.

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A story of success

When Harry Keaton became director of the Lillian James Learning Center, he met Freddie Moore, one of the center’s greatest success stories.

Moore had been working under custodial contract for about four years, Keaton said.

Moore approached him and said, “You don’t know me, but my name is Freddie Moore and my dream in life is to be a custodian for the Raleigh County Board of Education,” recalled Keaton.

Moore then told Keaton that he would be willing to do whatever it took to reach his dream.

Keaton said he was able to handle the job and the machinery, but passing the written competency test had been a challenge for him in the past.

Moore was tutored three days a week for a year and eventually passed the exam and became a substitute custodian for Raleigh County Schools.

“He took every call he could get and in a year he was a full-time custodian with the board of education,” said Keaton.

Eventually Moore was able to work at Liberty High School, the school he graduated from and still lives near.

Through the West Virginia Association of Rehab Facilities, Moore was presented the state “Stepping Stone” award for progressing in his job, and the following year won the state “Employee of the Year.”

“He has his retirement, his salary and his dream job,” commented the center director.

“He is not only a big success story for us here, he is a statewide success story.”

— Sarah Plummer